The Deceased Antecedent (A Sam Suffix Mystery)

Scott Gardner

It lay there, draped across the corner of the desk, slashed to ribbons, red stains expanding on its midriff. The mother had led Private Linguistigator Sam Suffix into the study, but now she turned away, newly aghast at the sight. Suffix shot past her, straight to the desk, with a fixed, almost sick interest in the carnage.

“Was this exactly how you found it, Ma’am?” he asked. She half-turned, nodding between sobs. Suffix pulled on a rubber glove and lifted the corner of the defiled sheet of paper on the desk, checking for patterns in its deep red gashes. He could see immediately that only three tenths of the compare-and-contrast essay that had been written on it remained intact.

“As I’m sure you’ve guessed, Ma’am, your son’s classwork has been brutally mutilated. I’d say the perpetrator really enjoyed doing it.” Suffix leaned in at the paper one more time, as if in admiration. “We may have a serial paper shredder on our hands.”

“I didn’t think they were capable of this,” she mustered after a few seconds of self-composing.

“‘They’? You know who did this?”

“One of his teachers, no doubt. I couldn’t bring myself to study it more closely, but it looks to me like his English teacher. This isn’t the first time, either. I’ve found defaced homework here on his desk before. Just never…”—her eyes welled up again—“this bad. Billy seems to think it’s part of some ritual he’s supposed to go through every time he takes his work to school. But I can’t bear to see it, Mr. Suffix! Isn’t there any hope for these defenseless creations of his?”

“Difficult to tell. This particular composition already suffers from severe decomposition. I’m no government-trained forensic grammatist, but from the looks of his introductory sentence—Electric dictionary is better than paper dictionary for many reasons—I can see it’s missing some vital articles. Without these articles, the body of the thing—I’m not sure how to put this gently—it’s just full of holes. The topics can’t flow smoothly out to their natural conclusions. Kind of like a soaker hose.”

“He’s mentioned feeling irregular about his verbs before, but I never imagined it could be this bad! Articles, you say?”

“Definitely. It might be a good idea to check the rest of the house to see if any other articles are missing. Your son could be selling them on the street in exchange for, well...”

“In exchange for what?” She faced Suffix directly, a mixed look of fear and indignation on her face.

Suffix’s experience had taught him when he had to be brutally honest with a client. “Ma’am, looking at that essay, I’d say he was dealing in superlatives. ‘Most cleanest’; ‘as possible as can’; ‘more better’…. Your son was overdosing on comparative and superlative modifiers when he wrote that.  Now, it could just be a case of simple word count padding. Who can blame a kid for wanting to float his homework on a few supermods every now and then? But it could be a genuine addiction to hyperbole, which is a million times more dangerous. And if so, maybe the reason his teacher went ballistic on him was to protect her own turf. English teachers get violently territorial when it comes to trafficking in sarcastic overstatement.”

She found her way into the chair behind her. Suffix offered her a tissue and stood there, allowing her to let it all sink in.

“If it’s any consolation, Ma’am, I’ve seen this kind of thing before. It doesn’t always end in tragedy. There’s a way out. You should talk to your son about resubmission. Some schools even have clinics for it. It’s a painful, humbling process, but I’ve seen resub do wonders. In the meantime we’ve got to watch out for that teacher. Who knows how many more essays are out there, lying in pools of their own pleonasms. The sooner we get your son out of that class and into an elective course, the better!”